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Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene in 1985 with the publication of her début novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a fictional “retelling” of her childhood in a working-class Pentecostal family. Winterson’s parents, who adopted her, raised her to be a missionary, a charismatic mouthpiece for a God she feared. The prodigious Mrs. Winterson beat and berated her, attempted to wall her off from all culture save the Bible, and then, upon discovering that her daughter was sleeping with a woman, cast her out of the house at sixteen. Winterson supported herself as a mortician’s assistant, ice-cream-van driver, and aide in a psychiatric hospital while studying for her A-levels. After earning a degree in English from St. Catherine’s College, in Oxford, she moved to London, where she took on more odd jobs. (In 1997, she disclosed that one of those jobs was not sex work, exactly, but servicing married women in hotel rooms; the housewives expressed their thanks in Le Creuset saucepans.)
“Oranges,” which was followed by the experimental novels “The Passion,” in 1987, and “Sexing the Cherry,” in 1989, made Winterson a literary celebrity, a nervy, young, female alternative to Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Critics praised her pyrotechnic language, her lyrical attention to desire and emotion, her imagination, her exuberance. The journalist Angela Lambert wrote that the experimental early books maintained a “high standard of captivating originality, using words so that they played and shimmered like dolphins in a sunlit sea.” But she took issue with Winterson’s “condescending, even intimidating tone” on the ground that “few critics . . . care to be patronised by a working class lesbian from Accrington.”
At times, Winterson seemed ill-equipped to handle her own meteoric rise. She blustered: during a late-night television interview, she proclaimed herself the natural heir to Virginia Woolf. Asked by the press to choose a “book of the year,” she chose her own. Asked to name her favorite living author, she named herself. She told a newspaper that her rhapsodic novel “Written on the Body” had been inspired by her own affair with her married agent—outing the woman in question. Reviewers began to accuse her of involution, pretension, and self-entrancement. “She cannot resist making metaphors out of molehills,” the Independent declared. Her writing “has itself become steadily more impaired by her self-regard and insularity,” the Spectator chided. In the Times Book Review, William H. Pritchard suggested that “her recent public pronouncements raise the possibility that, like the now wholly faded Dame Edith Sitwell (who did her bit for magic poetic realism), Ms. Winterson may turn out to belong more to the history of publicity than of literature.”
Winterson moved from the city to the country. She gathered her friends, including the crime writer Ruth Rendell, the literary agent Philippa Brewster, and the actor Vicky Licorish, around her. She kept writing—historical fiction, a Shakespeare adaptation, a renovation of the “Frankenstein” plot, children’s literature, and essays about art and culture. “The PowerBook,” which came out in 2000, spliced Winterson’s perennial themes—language, gender, adultery—with curiosity about the dawn of the Internet. Two decades later, she would extend this inquiry still further with an essay collection, “12 Bytes: How A.I. Will Change the Way We Live and Love.” Winterson made what seems in retrospect like her official comeback in 2011, publishing a memoir revisiting her childhood, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?,” to readers’ delight. If “Oranges” transfigured her painful upbringing, the new book stared unblinkingly at it, submitting yet more alterations to the record. Winterson’s latest book, “Night Side of the River,” a collection of ghost stories, is out in time for Halloween.
On Zoom, Winterson, who has been teaching creative writing at the University of Manchester since 2012, appeared in a glorious square of sunlight and foliage that turned out to be a window. She was in her house in the Gloucestershire countryside. She wore a snow-white button-down shirt, on which the top several buttons were rakishly unbuttoned. I found her to be kind, generous, open, and very funny, with a refreshing lack of interest in being anyone other than herself. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Why ghost stories?
Two years ago, Substack, the platform, asked me to write a story every week for a month, which is hard. But they paid well, and, as they wanted me for November, I said, “Let’s start on Halloween, shall we? And let’s do ghosts.” And, as I was writing them, I thought, You know, I’m really enjoying this, and maybe I will make this into a proper book.
The beauty of choosing a theme for a collection of short stories is that you get a very pleasing shape. With shorter forms, because there isn’t time to develop very far with character, you have to be smart about the insights that you can offer, the small details that show who people are. It’s good discipline, too, because short stories have to deliver. They need a beginning, middle, and end.
The other thing I wanted to do is to separate the supernatural from horror, because lately all of that has become conflated. My favorite ghost story is “A Christmas Carol.” That story’s joyful openheartedness, its munificence, its beneficence just delight me. I mean, there’s this thing that writers are meant to be miserable and suffer, but no—you can have a good time. Dickens is playing with the idea that a ghost will intervene on your behalf and stop you from walking under that bus. It’s a very seductive idea, isn’t it?
I loved that about the collection. “No Ghost Ghost Story” is a sweet story that imagines ghosts as loved ones who keep looking out for us. Other stories are more high gothic, with villainous ghosts and garments that try to strangle you. And then there are creepy futuristic stories that seem almost like warnings. Was there a particular flavor of ghost story that you especially liked writing?
I was intrigued by what A.I. might do with our notions of being haunted, and I was playing around with the idea of the metaverse. If we did inhabit a credible digital space, an alternative, non-biological world where we went around as our avatars, we’d be starting to negotiate how to avoid the hard boundary of death, which is all humans really want to do. In the metaverse, there’s no reason why you should die, if your loved ones wished to keep your digital twin going.
In [the story] “Ghost in the Machine,” I wanted to play with the idea that you might start to have a real relationship with an entity that is a program but is much more interesting than anybody you know in your biological world. Where would that logically take you? It would logically take you toward your own death.
It was striking to me how A.I. converged with the ghostly in your stories, because to me they seem very different. Ghosts are aligned with the past, whereas A.I. feels related to the future.
I was brought up in a very religious house. Religion is so deeply sunk into the self for me that it cannot be separated. And so I’m intrigued that the religious notion of the biological self as a temporary condition is now finding a new home in science and tech. They’re saying “Well, yeah, [the biological self] is a temporary condition that you’ll be able to sidestep through the creation of a digital self.” That’s the promise of technology, and it’s also the promise of religion, the first disrupter of death. And it amuses me to see the separation from the biological self that religion has always promised and foretold coming into vogue, coming into fashion, through the agency of Big Tech.
Has your relationship to ghosts changed over time? Your upbringing was so devout.
Well, this is the trouble. Of course I believed in ghosts growing up because in my deeply religious household we expected to continue after death. But what was strange in our household was that I lived with two generations of traumatized adults. They wouldn’t have called themselves that because nobody “in the war” ever did. It was only much later in life I realized that my grandparents and my parents had been in separate wars.
They damaged one another. And of course they were going to pass on the damage to the next generation because no one talked about it except in a lighthearted way. But what was striking was that they and all of their friends, without exception, when I was a young person, all had stories from their separate wars about seeing or having seen something, seeing it very clearly, or feeling that they had been visited. And this was not for questioning. It was simply offered. My father’s story was of being guided to the one house on the street where he could have safely spent the night during an air raid, the one house that wasn’t bombed, and then finding out that the person who sent him there had died months earlier. My father was a very simple man. He could barely read because he left school at fourteen. He wasn’t looked after or cared for as a human, but he was a good man. He wasn’t a storyteller. This was just something he offered as one of his wartime experiences.
I appreciated the line in your book: “There is a valve, a pressure release, that comes with being able to say: ‘I can’t explain this.’ ”
It’s good for people in this world to say “I don’t know. I don’t know the answer.” When it comes to things that we can’t explain, it’s better to keep an open mind.
During the pandemic, there was a resurgence of interest in the supernatural. It may have been because, for the first time, lots of people were quiet. They were receptive and open in a way that modern life doesn’t allow. Everything is busy, noisy, brightly lit; people’s days are managed. In the pandemic, perhaps you had that time to walk down a quiet road and not see anyone. That puts your mind into a different condition. And perhaps the mind needs to be in a different condition in order to receive certain things. If you’re doing creative work, you have to move your mind out of its habitual executive function, its administrative mode, and to allow other things to come in, to allow patterns to emerge, to connect things in ways that are simply impossible when we’re just formatting stuff.
My friend, when I told him I was interviewing you about ghosts, sent me an essay that differentiated between the aesthetics of the spooky and the scary. What do you make of that distinction?
I prefer the spooky. I want to disconnect the supernatural from where it is lodged in horror. Stephen King’s great, but—I suppose we’re always scared by what we can’t understand and what we feel we have no weapons against. Because what do you do with something that’s not a dimensional being? It can disappear at any moment. You can’t grasp it and you can’t follow it. You are passive in the encounter, and humans hate that. Maybe our ancestors were less frightened because they were more accustomed to the idea that there was a space where they did not have control. In a religious setting, for a religious person, you accept that you must surrender. You accept that there are limits to the human condition, and you accept the idea that you cannot know. You can’t do ghosts by metrics. There’s a parallel here with shape-shifting legends and fairy tales, where the genies can fit into tiny bottles or be three hundred feet tall. Once you get into the non-biological realm, the metrics don’t work at all.
It really is like the Internet.
The parallels with the Internet are great! I love it that you’ll be able to have an avatar, which is not necessarily human, not the same gender as you are, and that you can have a kind of playfulness, if they don’t fuck it up and make it all about selling stuff—which they will.
I was struck by the number of queer and trans ghosts in the collection. It made me realize that my literary diet has been weirdly lacking in gay and gender-nonconforming ghosts.
Why? Why? Why should all ghosts be heterosexual?
I don’t know!
They can’t possibly follow the binary after death because it’s a human construct. So that has to go. Ghosts appear as male or female because they need us to recognize them. That’s why they wear clothes, I’m sure. It’s for us, our limited senses, the narrow spectrum that we live in. Our senses are really crude: our auditory senses, our visual senses. We’re very limited persons.
What is your personal relationship to the Internet like? Do you use social media?
I don’t like social media, and I’m horrified at the way it’s gone. But I wouldn’t want a world without Google. I do think tech is neutral. We are in charge and it’s a tool. All it’s doing is showing us in this larger-than-life form our own grossness and inadequacy. Whenever we invent something incredible, we make it into a tool of oppression.
The tech bros always get the words wrong. They say that the chatbots are “hallucinating” when they give the wrong answer to a query. The machines are not hallucinating. They’re machine-splaining. Because they were created by men.
I wanted to ask you about ghosts and writing. Is there a connection?
I think you have to be open, to be receptive, in order to write. It’s this business we were talking about earlier, how you get yourself into the right state of mind to allow new patterns to form, to allow new ideas to emerge, and to not start putting a formula on your work or trying to steer it in a particular direction—all the things that humans do. I’m always saying this to my students: stop trying to stamp it with an identity too soon. Let it be and let yourself be.
People are frightened of not producing in this obsessed world of continuous work. And they think that it’s better to produce something mediocre than to produce nothing. It takes time to learn whether you’re just bottoming out or whether you need this time for things to emerge in a different way. It’s hard in our world not to throttle your ideas to death.
It’s a large part of why I prefer to live in the country. There’s no one around me here and at night it’s completely dark. I am alone. I don’t particularly like bright lights. In the evening, it’s very meditative. You can read, you can think, you can let your mind settle into a better space.
You told the Guardian in an interview, “There is still that self-consciousness in women, that they are women, which is hampering. It’s very difficult to do good work if you’re self-conscious.” I wonder if self-consciousness has anything to do with the creative negotiations you’re talking about.
I think it does. Women are always clearing up and tidying up and fixing it up for their families, for the men in their lives, for their bosses in the workplace. And, at the same time, women are always worrying about their appearance. The female subject now, thanks to the Internet—she’s under relentless scrutiny on social media. It’s horrible and very hard, I think, to be able to shut that out and just get on with your own self. To put that away and think, No, this is my time. I’m going to do my work in my own way. I’m not going to worry about any of that. There are hugely powerful assumptions about what a woman is, what a woman is for. It’s like gravity keeping you in your place. If you don’t have something with which to push back against those assumptions, then it’s extremely difficult to have the kind of self-confidence that comes from being able to leave the self behind to some degree.
You’ve been a young, creative, rule-breaking person in the public eye. What was that like? Was self-consciousness an issue for you?
Well, look. If you’re a woman who wants to do anything other than be an attractive doormat, you’re going to break the rules. Any woman who wants to do something for herself is already in a transgressive state as far as society and certainly religion are concerned. So we start from there. Then, when you’ve crashed around and broken enough of the entry-level rules, you might as well start breaking a few more. You realize that all these things are propositional; they were invented and not by you and not really for your well-being.
Yes, I was self-conscious. But there was no social media. There were only three TV channels. I live in England. Distractions were few. I was in a poor northern town. There was lots of time to think. I had the best life possible, I believe, for where I am now, in that it was intense, and it allowed a kind of dimensionality that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. And it gave me—because I didn’t feel I belonged, no adopted person ever does—a kind of resilience, and the determination to find out if I might belong somewhere or how I would make a world. Because clearly the one I was in was bonkers.
Being adopted is like coming into the show after the curtain goes up, it’s like starting the book after the first chapter. You always feel that there’s something missing, and that you might as well write the story yourself because the story you’ve been given is so hopeless. That is a great driver forward. The most important thing that happened to me was a realization when I was sixteen that came out of nowhere as I was walking home one night from the library where I had to do all my reading because I couldn’t take books home. And I thought, if I can read myself as fiction, as well as fact, then I can get out of here. Because I realized that I could rewrite it; it was as simple and as powerful as that. I thought, I don’t have to be in their story. If I’m fiction, I can be my own character, which is why I became my own character in my first novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.” It was such a mistake [for reviewers] to see that as an autobiography. It wasn’t. It was me writing myself out of where I had been and writing myself into a place where I could be. That was the huge freedom of it. If we understand that our self-state is actually provisional, changeable, and propositional—that we make it up as we go along—we have much more flexibility and much more freedom than we think we do.
But then you went back, in 2011, and wrote an actual autobiography, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”
I discovered some information I hadn’t had before, about my biological mother. I needed to revisit the material in the light of where I was then, twenty-seven years later. I didn’t know where I was going with it. I simply set off. And after two weeks I’d written fifteen thousand words of “Why Be Happy,” which told me that there was enormous internal pressure to do this, a great geyser from inside. I didn’t show it to anyone before I finished it. I had not expected to arrive there. That’s why the last line of the book is “I have no idea what happens next.”
My core belief is that we don’t know what happens next. But we can take control of our narrative, which isn’t about the kind of me-first individualism that has so marred our civic or communal life and that I abhor. It’s not about unthinking, unreflecting selfishness. It is about how you know your own story at a deep level and how you then proceed to tell it, whether or not you ever publish a book. Are you somebody who likes to play it for laughs? Somebody who wants the audience, who wants the approval, who needs to dramatize your life at every turn? Or can you find the urtext of who you are and be at least the co-author of that, while recognizing the other voices that made you as a younger person?
And then the question becomes: What can you do? Can you treat your story as something that can be moved, that can be changed? I love working with texts and changing them, whether my own or other people’s. That sense of liveliness that happens when the thing isn’t fixed and it isn’t final. It’s so hideous, these ideas about the Bible or the Quran, that they are fixed and final texts. Fucking originalists. Give me a break. We’re not where we were in 1787—is that when the U.S. Constitution was written?
It was great for the time, and we get the spirit of it. But what’s more important, the spirit or the letter? If you’re doing creative work, you already know that it’s the spirit, the thing that must move through and continue to refresh itself as humanity does.
You’re talking about writing for your life and about telling your own story as a kind of catharsis or liberation. But it strikes me that publishing your “corrected” version of yourself might be painful. You’re giving the people you wished to convince an opportunity to push back or say that it wasn’t like that.
Look, it’s endless. One of the reasons that I’ve come to this place of peace, relative peace, after nearly forty years is because I have been through all the possible cycles of rejection, rage, hostility, denial, personal attacks, and just mean-mindedness. Everything that you can possibly get thrown at you as a writer, I have had thrown at me. Some of it was about my sexuality, my gender, my class. Some of it was about my attitude. It was very vicious for a long time. But anybody who stands up and says “This is how I’m going to tell it” is going to get hit. You have to accept that there will be disappointment and difficulty and that there will be misunderstanding. And it doesn’t matter because hopefully, as you continue, you’ll find that people have started to come to the work, different bits of it, and to find something for themselves to take away and use as a building block in their own work.
Do you have any opinions about trends in contemporary literature that you would like to share?
We’ve had an upsurge of women writing about their experience. This is an excellent thing. It’s necessary, and it is to be appreciated and applauded.
I find it quite boring. But that’s only because I’m most interested in a kind of imaginative response to the world, rather than a verbatim response. When I was a young reader, I gravitated much more toward the European tradition than the Anglo-American. “Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino, is one of my favorite books, just as I love those stories that fold into other stories, like “The Arabian Nights,” more than what we might call social realism or the new realism. But I am not here to sit in judgment. I want to embrace and encourage anybody out there who has a particular way that they need to work. We’re too critical in the wrong ways. I have a rule with book reviewing that, if I can’t find more to say about the book than some carping about what I don’t like, I just send it back. Someone else will do a better job. The writer deserves better. And I’m probably missing the point.
That’s very gracious of you.
Because I was messing around in the supernatural, and because Shirley Jackson has had such a renaissance, and because I hadn’t read very much apart from “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” I thought that I’d better go in there and have a look. I read it all and popped out the other side and I thought, This reëvaluation is not just. She is not very good. Then, lo and behold, I read Harold Bloom, whom I kind of love, although he was maddening, and, bless him, he’d decided to go on the same odyssey and had come to the same conclusion. There were so many tantalizing possibilities in her. If only she’d been freer. Because some of the writing is gorgeous and she can’t sustain it.
When I do my courses with my students, I teach things that I don’t particularly like or enjoy. I tell the kids “Read as widely as you can. Get as much inside you as you possibly can. Don’t judge it too quickly. Learn why it interests you and why you get mad at something, why you get bored.”
For example, Philip K. Dick is a terrible writer, sentence by sentence. Something like that can be useful for students to see. We look at the sentence and we say, “Don’t do that.” But then we look at the whole story and think, Yeah, but it works.
That, too, is part of the creative process and part of what people have to offer. People come back up in time for a while and then they disappear into the waters again, into the darkness, because they’re not relevant for a particular generation of readers, and then somebody else will find them. And that seems to me to be perfectly all right as well: that things should disappear, then return, be in vogue for a while, then off they go again.
I’ve read several interviews in which you describe yourself as “happy.” You’ve cast it in the past as something integral or defining about your temperament. It surprised me because I don’t think of “happy” as a stable characteristic.
I’m an enthusiast. I’m not at all a cool girl. There are very many earnest young women at the moment, because young women who are creative feel that they need to be earnest. And all I would like to say is that you don’t. You’re allowed to make jokes. Men don’t worry about being funny or serious. They think they’re always serious even when they’re being funny and at the same time they always think they’re being funny when they’re not. But, as usual, women separate themselves off from many possibilities in order to be taken seriously.
As for happiness, I think the Americans were nearly right about it being a pursuit. But it’s not quite a pursuit. It’s more like an emergent property, like consciousness, and it comes out of a sense of meaning. For me, that’s very important. I have to feel—and it may be my religious background—I have to feel, above all, that this is a life of service. You build the things in your life that matter. It’s like having a 3-D printer. You build it layer by layer, and in the end you’ve got a rocket ship. It’s incremental and you can make it out of mushroom fibre, if you’d like.
So you do it layer by layer and you don’t worry so much about where it’s going to lead. With friendships, you go on putting the work in—you try to be a good friend, you try to show up, and then gradually you realize that you’re building something that is both high and deep. That is very sustaining. It’s these really quite old-fashioned core values that I think allow for a level of happiness such that even when things are difficult, as they must be in every life, even when we’re struggling either existentially or in a practical way, we still have these things that we have built ourselves and that are solid. We can find genuine comfort there, which is not escapism or a delusion.
Back to this business of rules, you don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules, but you do have to play by your own. And, when you’ve worked out what they are, just stick with them. Then you have self-respect, which is not the same as being self-conscious or self-involved. And that really does matter. Self-respect gives you boundaries about what you will and won’t do. It also allows you to be generous, allows you to say yes as well as no. And it means that, even if you do something that in the short term makes you deeply unhappy or that you find deeply difficult, you know why you’ve done it—it might be getting out of a bad relationship or saying goodbye to a job that is actually destroying you.
So often people imagine that when they make the right decision they will feel better. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred they will feel worse. When we do make these big changes, often it’s really disorienting. There can be a rush of euphoria, and then it’s hard, hard, hard. I think that’s not often enough said. At that point, we can’t look for happiness. We have to go back to the core values from which happiness will emerge again, in the fullness of time. ♦